The Strange Tale of the Funny Economist: The Stephen Leacock Museum

958950955961958Given writer Stephen Leacock’s anointed position as Canada’s most famous humorist, there is delicious irony in the fact that that his early professional life was spent in that most humorless of disciplines, Economics.

Tag along with me to catch a glimpse of Leacock’s dual personalities. Along the way we’ll visit his home, now the Leacock Museum National Historic Site on the shores of Lake Couchiching in Orillia.

Following the lead of thousands of Europeans in the 19th century, the Leacock family of Swanmore, England threw their lot toward Canada in 1876.
Leacock’s father, Peter, born of the upper-crust English gentry had decided he wanted to farm. He bought a 100 acre property on the shores of Lake Simcoe in the Canadian province of Ontario, near the present day town of Sutton.

In the upper-class British tradition, Stephen was sent off to boarding school—Upper Canada College, in the city of Toronto. Then it was on to the University of Toronto and an eventual degree in 1891 in Modern Languages.

After university graduation, Stephen returned to Upper Canada College and for a decade he taught at the school. Enough time to earn enough money to sustain him while he earned a Ph.D. in Economics at the University of Chicago. He left for the U.S. in 1899.

Leacock’s biographer David Legate paints a picture of the youthful Stephen Leacock:

Leacock smoked his pipe like an overloaded chimney. He swore like the farmer he once had been; chewed tobacco vigourously, and he was not above his pint of ale or dram of scotch.

But not so uncouth, it seems, to scare away the ladies.

In 1900, he married Beatrix Hamilton. “Trix” had aspirations to be an actress and was the niece of Sir Henry Pellet of Toronto’s Casa Loma fame. When Stephen returned to Chicago to begin his second year of studies, his wife Trix accompanied him.

In 1903, Dr. Stephen Leacock and Trix returned to Canada. He soon took up a position as Professor of Economics at McGill University in Montreal.

Leacock’s Economics students loved their Professor’s wry sense of humor, and, despite the grey/beige subject matter he taught, his classes were popular ones.

But teaching wasn’t Leacock’s only gift. He had the writer’s touch. Leacock’s first book, published in 1906, Elements of Political Science became a staple in Political Science classrooms across North America.

The book earned him prestige and money—enough of the latter to buy a 20-acre parcel of land jutting out into what was known as Brewery Bay, where Lake Couchiching and Lake Simcoe meet.

There, one day, he planned to build a fine summer home.
When I build my house, I shall make it very plain, but at the same time very large…it will become a charming English place—I’m tired of cities and people. It’s a case of Good-bye Proud world. I’m going home.

In the meantime, he and Trix would put up with less pretentious living accommodations. The first year the Leacocks and any guests they may be entertaining slept in tents on the lakeside property and ate in a slap-dash cookhouse.

In coming years, a combination Boathouse/Studio took shape near water’s edge. “The Boathouse” did double duty as Leacock’s writing studio. Eventually a modest one story cottage was built.

Dry academia was not Leacock’s only interest. With a keen sense of the ironies of life and the human condition, Leacock was also a skilled humorist and satirist. While his income from teaching and scholarly writing would pay the bills, his humour books would make him world famous–and wealthy.

In later years, Leacock would say he did his best writing at Brewery Bay.

In 1910, the first of his humour books, Literary Lapses was published. Two years later, his best-known, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town appeared. Over his exceptional career, Leacock wrote 35 books of humour.

Celebration was also to come with the birth of Stephen and Beatrix’s son, their only child Stephen Jr., in 1915.

But dark times were on the horizon. One day on the golf course, Trix was hit in the breast by an errant golf ball. The ensuing pain threw her into a physical and psychological malaise.

An eventual visit to her doctor in early 1925 revealed advanced breast cancer. Was it the result of the earlier accident? She died later that year, only 46 years of age.

Writing and Brewery Bay would provide refuge for Leacock after Trix’s death. His books were selling well, a serendipity which allowed him to finally build his “plain but very large” dream home on Brewery Bay.

To ensure its appropriate grandness, Leacock hired a tony Toronto architectural firm to design and oversee its construction. But Leacock had his own ideas for his new home too.

A conservationist long before it was fashionable to be so, Leacock insisted that after the modest one story house was demolished to make room for the grand new home, that as many of its building materials as possible be re-cycled and re-used in the new house.

So let’s go for a ride to Brewery Bay circa 1928. We’ll see what’s going on at Stephen Leacock’s spiffy new house.

Stopping to admire the showy flower garden in full bloom, we enter the front door of Leacock House. It’s a dignified but unpretentious period home, incorporating a number of thoroughly 21st century architectural elements.
A glass solarium roof bathes welcome light into the expansive sunroom. Leacock, no doubt, like most-long-suffering Ontarians coaxed whatever sun he could into his home. Leacock’s original worktable survives in this room.

Three rooms on the ground floor are dominated by Leacock’s expansive library. It’s an eclectic collection, which includes everything from scholarly volumes to popular novelists.

There’s a story behind Leacock’s library too. After the writer’s death from throat cancer in 1944, the home remained in the hands of his only son Stephen Jr.

In 1954 with the home deteriorating, the junior Leacock offered the 28-acre property, house and many of its contents, including furniture, his father’s manuscripts, papers and books. to the town of Orillia. The price tag of $50,000 was well beyond Orillia’s pocketbook.

In 1956, Toronto developer Lou Ruby purchased the package. His plans called for demolishing the house for new condominiums. Distraught at the loss of an integral part of Orillia’s history, the town’s Historical Society intervened. They begged Ruby to save it.

Their efforts were successful. Ruby sold back two acres of the property (retaining 26 acres for his development) as well as the house to Orillia. Restoration then began with plans to open the Leacock Museum.

In a generous gesture, Lou Ruby donated back to the Museum, over 30,000 items of the home, which he had acquired in the original real estate transaction. They included hundreds of Leacock’s personal papers, books and manuscripts. A priceless acquisition.

In 1956, The Leacock Museum opened. In 1994 it was named a National Historic Site.

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